U.S. women's soccer sings Sundhage's praises

Michael Silver
Yahoo! Sports

As Pia Sundhage entered a team dining hall at a Crowne Plaza Hotel near the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., last November, the new coach of the U.S. women's soccer team experienced a brief case of stage fright.

Getting ready to address her players for the first time, Sundhage, the first foreign-born person to hold the job, wanted to say something profound about the dramatic transformation she intended to provoke. The former Swedish national team star had just spent a lunch in solitude contemplating her message, and all that she could come up with was forandring, a word in her native tongue that means "change."

Now it was quiet, and everyone was staring at her. She didn't have a speech. Nor, complicating matters, did she have a commanding grasp of the English language.

Worst of all, she didn't have a guitar.

What followed – an impromptu, on-key, a capella version of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin' " – brought awestruck tears to the faces of some of her stunned players, a few of whom began to sing along. Others merely sat in their chairs and squirmed.

"I was slightly embarrassed, slightly uncomfortable," midfielder Aly Wagner recalled. "But then I was just thinking how cool it was that she's that confident. She obviously had the joie de vivre. It said so much about her, I think, in a two-minute period. We walked out thinking, Now that's a first impression."

Sundhage, 48, wasn't just channeling her inner '60s revolutionary for shock value. Over the past nine months, she has shaken up a successful but predictable squad whose style had grown stale, making tactical and conceptual alterations that have been better received than her "Swedish Idol" debut.

She's winning over her players and winning, period, having gone 21-0-1 since replacing Greg Ryan, with the "tie" being a penalty-kicks victory over Canada in the final of the 2008 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying tournament. Heading into the Beijing Games, with the soccer tournament set to begin Aug. 6 (Team USA opens group play against Norway), Sundhage's squad joins World Cup champion Germany and runner-up Brazil among the favorites.

Granted, the United States' chances of defending its Olympic title suffered a huge blow in its final pretournament tune-up on July 16, a 1-0 victory over Brazil in which star forward Abby Wambach went down with a broken left leg. Wambach, who has 99 career goals, had a titanium rod surgically inserted into her lower leg and might not return until 2009.

Before Sundhage replaced Ryan, who was fired in the wake of a 4-0 thrashing by the Brazilians in the 2007 World Cup semifinals, the loss of Wambach would have been calamitous. While still a major bummer, succeeding without the tall, physical forward at least seems plausible given the changes Sundhage has already initiated.

"Before, there was a lot of running and fighting and looking for Abby Wambach, basically," Sundhage said of the style that preceded her arrival. "I felt the U.S. team was predictable. Everything was just so direct. I've tried to give them some other approaches and options."

In fairness, Team USA had a 51-game unbeaten streak under Ryan before losing to Brazil, a defeat intensified by his controversial decision to switch goalkeepers and the ensuing fallout when he was criticized by deposed starter Hope Solo. It's also true that Ryan's predecessor, April Heinrichs, employed a similar approach that emphasized long passes and high crosses while shunning much of the playmaking and crisp ball movement that teams like the Brazilians favor.

"Pia was the perfect fit for me personally in that I wanted to reach limits I didn't even know how to get to," Wambach said two days before suffering her injury. "Because she's European – or, more specifically, Scandinavian – she has a totally different mindset about the game, and she was able to bring a lot of fresh ideas. Instead of 'Pass the ball to Abby and see what she can do,' it has been about rhythm and tempo and changing things up.

"Before, I wasn't really feeling like I was being stretched enough. She's definitely challenged me in a way I've never been challenged before."

If possession is nine-tenths of the law, it was one-tenth of the U.S. attack before Sundhage arrived. Now, to the delight of skilled ballhandlers like Wagner and fellow midfielder Carli Lloyd, there's a renewed emphasis on beating opponents in the open field and thoughtful assaults involving multiple passes.

"It's been awesome, and it's been stimulating," Wagner said. "It's nice to see there's a plan in place, and it's a layered approach. She demands that we play through the midfield and she wants people taking risks – and for us to play a more beautiful game. She has a great feel for the game, and her coaching instincts are amazing."

Lloyd, who gave the U.S. a 1-0 victory over Sweden in early July on a brilliant goal in which she beat three defenders in the penalty box with stop-and-go moves before left-footing the ball home, has been similarly thrilled with the stylistic changes.

"I guess you could say in the past this team was about being fit, being hard and having a lot of heart," Lloyd said. "We've still got the heart, and we're still one of the fittest teams out there. But it's a different philosophy. We're trying to change history a bit. Instead of just being a fit team, we're going to be a fit team that plays good soccer and scores a lot of nice goals."

Yet when Sundhage got her first look at Wambach after taking the job late last year, it was the 5-foot-11 star's lack of fitness that jumped out at her.

"She was unfit when she came in," Sundhage recalled, conceding that she was worried whether Wambach would live up to billing. "I was like, 'What the …?' It took two months before she looked like a world-class player. But it was actually good, because it allowed me to stress the (new) way we were playing, and every single pass didn't automatically go to her."

One element of revamping the U.S. attack was to restore playmaking to the back line, a staple of the great U.S. teams of the '90s that featured creative defenders like Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett. Says Sundhage: "We took a chance to take (former midfielder) Lori Chalupny and put her at left back. This is because of our new style -- we want people in the back who are comfortable with the ball and who have an attacking personality."

Sundhage has also made a point of getting her players to deviate from the relentless up-tempo style of the past, explaining, "I think soccer is rhythm. Everybody says you should increase the tempo to achieve a high-intensity style, but I would say sometimes you have to slow it down to dictate the tempo."

Chastain, who was highly critical of Heinrichs (who removed her from the starting lineup) and Ryan (who dropped her from the team, ending her international career), has been impressed with the changes.

"In recent years, our pace was always one pace," Chastain said. "When we got the ball, it was 'Rush down the field,' and if it didn't work we'd hustle back and try it again. It was like we'd lost our identity, and each player just became some widget designed to achieve a result, rather than displaying unique individual qualities.

"Now people are going to have to make decisions out there and create combinations with each other and play nice soccer. It's not necessarily new, but it seems revolutionary because we had gotten away from it for so long."

The people least thrilled with this development? "(Opposing) coaches have said to Pia that they've noticed we're trying to play a more possession-oriented style," Wagner said. "Jokes have been made. They don't like that we actually play soccer now."

There's another noticeable change under Sundhage: She has made strategic and stylistic switches during games.

"As a head coach it takes a lot of courage to make tactical decisions on the fly," Wambach said. "She's very intelligent, but I think she checks her intelligence at the door when it comes to coaching. She coaches through her expression and her passion and her love of the game."

Swedes aren't necessarily known for showing overt emotion, but Sundhage may be an exception. Said Lloyd: "It's been great to have a coach full of smiles. She jumps up and down when you score a great goal in practice, or even in warm-ups. It's contagious."

So, apparently, is Sundhage's singing. An accomplished guitarist who learned to play from her brother at the age of 10, Sundhage mastered Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel tunes as a child and never stopped strumming. Before a practice in June, she gave a talk to her players that used love as a theme. Afterward she gathered them in the locker room, pulled out an acoustic guitar and said, "Please sit down, there's something I want to tell you." Then, doing her best Bette Midler, she proceeded to sing "The Rose." This time, no one felt embarrassed or uncomfortable, for Sundhage's players had long since accepted her vocal inclinations.

Earlier this year, after Sundhage's mother died and she returned to Sweden for the funeral, Wambach and some of the other U.S. players rewrote the lyrics to several songs as a sort of sympathy card to their coach. When Sundhage returned, the entire team serenaded her with their composition.

"It was nice," Sundhage said, smiling. "I wasn't expecting that."

It's a feeling with which Sundhage's players, and their opponents, are now quite familiar.

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